SermonsShah Reza Pahlavi

End of Sabbatical and a new writer friend

Today is the last day of my sabbatical from Christian Peacemaker Teams, which began June 1, 2012. I ran a search on Google images for “sabbatical” and most of them involved beaches.

Mine didn’t.

I wanted to write my novel Shea, which for biblically-interested people is a retelling of the Hosea-Gomer narrative with the gender roles reversed, and a fascist theocratic government running the U.S. instead of a theocratic government that had adopted elements of Canaanite fertility religions running ancient Israel. For those not interested in the biblical aspect, it is the memoir of Islam Goldberg-Jones, written from prison, telling of how he, his wife Hoshea “Shea” Weber, their family and comrades brought down the Christian Republic that ruled the United States from 2065-2087. He also writes about how he betrayed Shea with three increasingly heartbreaking affairs (which is the parallel of Gomer having three children—although to be fair to her only one was officially by another man.) Mission accomplished.
I wanted to get Because the Angels formatted as an E-book. Mission accomplished.

I wanted to get a website set up. Mission accomplished.
I learned how to use Twitter. I have NOT learned how to spend only fifteen minutes a day on Twitter.

What I didn’t get done
I wanted to help a friend who was a dissident in Iran under the Shah and Khomeini regimes write her memoir. The process turned out to be too painful for her so we had to let it go.

I did not finish filing all the papers in the boxes in the hall upstairs, but I have made good progress in throwing out things that don’t need to be filed anymore.

I still have a room full of my mother’s stuff that needs to be listed on Ebay.

I did not work on my Arabic language study AT ALL.

I did not do a retreat with my spiritual director.

So what have I learned? I’ve been on a cycle over the years where I would become overwhelmed with CPT work, get depressed because I didn’t have time to write the novel that was in me, and then had to leave CPT to do it. I need to figure out a way to take depression out of that equation. And that probably means that I need to actually assign times for CPT work, time for housework, and time for writing work. And within the CPT work, I need to assign time for filing, time for e-mail, and time for Arabic language study, or they won’t get done.

So am I happy to be going back? Not sure. I’m not great with transitions. But having spent a year saying that I do human rights work without actually having done any, it will be nice now to be saying it for real. And I will enjoy interacting with my colleagues again and following what’s going on in Iraqi Kurdistan, Colombia, Palestine, and the Indigenous communities we work with. And I’m pretty sure the idea for my next novel will come to me while I am working, as all the others have.

But oh the conference calls; I have not missed the conference calls at all, or the personality conflicts that arise because we tend to attract intensely committed people, and when you get all that intensity in the same room, well, sometimes people of goodwill can be very hard on each other.

I’ve had the good fortune, at the end of my sabbatical, to find a writer friend with whom I can exchange manuscripts for critique. The writer’s group I wanted to get together at the beginning of the sabbatical fell through. I met Sara Selznick through She Writes, a forum for women writers—one of the sabbatical indulgences I’m afraid I will have to put aside when I start work again tomorrow. We had applied for the same fellowship and received identical, “you’re very talented and we hope you apply again, but no” rejections. After we exchanged applications, we became a two-woman writer’s critique group. You will find a description of her writing project The Color of Safety on her blog Three Kinds of Pie.

When I edit colleagues writing for CPTnet, I am doing more than one role. My main role is to make sure they provide a voice to our local partners and communicate the realities of their work effectively. But it is also my job to encourage them to become better writers. Their work in the field is the vital part of what we do. Our writer/editor relationship is a vehicle to enhance that work; the writing is not an end in itself. So I generally DO pull punches. I am not blunt about the deficits in their writing (although some of my colleagues may disagree.)

For my novel, Shea, I don’t want someone trying to tiptoe around my feelings. I need people to say, “This doesn’t work for me.”; “I don’t understand what you’re saying here.” “I hate this character.” My regular manuscript readers, who know me personally, tell me when something bothers them, but they usually will pull punches. Other writers won’t. I may choose not to change something based on a critique (one writer friend and I have what we call the Jane Austen—William Faulkner spectrum, with his taste leaning heavily toward the latter), but I want to hear it. I will consider it. And I find it liberating to dispense the critiques as well. I suppose I should check in with Sara to see whether she’s as happy with the arrangement as I have been, because I’ve been more on the dispensing end. But let me just say this: her novel is more than 200,000 words long and I was never bored.

The Shah, Savak, and the Pasdaran of Iran all suck

So I’m out here in Los Angeles, and I’ve actually been aware that I’ve been pushing my friend to talk to me about her past as we work on this memoir.   She didn’t talk about it for many years, because losing the love of her life and so many of her friends after the Iranian revolution was so hard, and in many ways, her whole family has led a diminished life here in Los Angeles;  if things had turned out differently, they would have been among the educated elite in Iran and they have all had to to live in enormous losses and start over from scratch here in the U.S.

I am aware of my own inadequacy when she tries to express certain concepts that she would be able to express them brilliantly in Farsi.  She comes from a family that recited poetry and her father wrote several volumes of it himself.

Today, my friend told me I should consider the rest of my time here vacation, which is something of a blow.  I haven’t said it in so many words;  I have tried to gently suggest it, but I didn’t come all this way; I didn’t pay for a plane ticket just to hang out in Los Angeles.  Truthfully, I’m not crazy about the sun and palm trees.  I don’t mind the slush and snow back home.  I’m here to work and there are certain things I can do only when she’s around.

Not sure what to do.  Don’t want to be insensitive, but I’m not really here to be on vacation either.  I have stuff I could be doing back home.  Maybe I’ll give her a couple days to see if she’ll change her mind.    I should really be blaming the violent men whose torturing and killing ways led to her being here.IRGC-logo


Off to California

I was supposed to fly to Burbank today to spend 2 1/2 weeks with a friend getting a start on her memoir.   The Rochester-JFK flight had mechanical problems, so I would have missed my connection, so I’m heading off tomorrow, instead.

My friend was active in the resistance against the regimes of both the Shah and the Islamic Republic, was widowed at 21 when her husband died in the mountains fight for the Kurdish resistance, ended up in an eight year international custody battle with her – for her son that crossed three continents and ended with her basically just stealing him.  Since then she has lost a job as a health and safety inspector engineer because she was a whistleblower and has had some other struggles that we won’t go into here.  She basically talked to no one about her rather adventurous life for twenty years until my husband Michael, who had known her in Israel (where she had fled to escape questioning by the Shah’s secret police) stopped into visit her because we were attending a convention in San Diego and took the train up to LA.

Maybe it was because she hadn’t seen Michael in 25 years and seeing him again brought her back to that time in her life, when she was preparing to return to Iraq with her fiance and fight for a secular democratic republic to take the place of the Shah’s regime.  Or maybe it was because she didn’t know me and I just wanted to hear her about her life, but she spent a couple days just pouring out this really remarkable story.  Periodically, she would stop and say, “You know, I haven’t talked about this for twenty years.”

I encouraged her to write it down, and she said she wasn’t ready to.  She also had realistic concerns for the security of friends and people in the resistance who still might be in Iran, but a couple years ago, she said she was ready, so I’m going out for a couple weeks to try to get a start on it.

Aside from being a worthwhile project in its own right, the memoir will help keep me from going insane over the fact I have an agent reading my Shea manuscript  (the one loosely based on the Hosea-Gomer narrative with the gender roles reversed.)  I tweaked a query letter for two weeks to an agency I have wanted to represent me since I knew about it, because of our shared political goals.  From what I have learned from googling the agent, I can’t imagine a more sympatico fit.  The odd thing is that I’m feeling a little depressed.  A couple years ago,  I would have spent the next month in delighted anticipation, thinking that this agent was really going to like my book once she read it.  And now, there’s part of me that really does think that, because I think it’s a good book, and because with the exception of a couple readers (See my “Feedback” posting) my readers think so too.  But then there’s this part of me that thinks, if she doesn’t like it, if the religious bits turn her off in the first couple pages, if [insert reason] what’s the point of going on, because there will never be another agent who will get me as much as this one does.  I was mentioning this to a friend at church, and she said that there’s a spiritual term for it called “joyful foreboding.”

Anyway, that’s all by way of saying, the memoir will help keep me from going crazy.

Also found out today, since I had time on my hands because of the flight cancellation, that freeze-drying a human body and then pulverizing it would probably make it better fertilizer than burning it.  And since the fascist regime in Shea happened to be doing that to its undesirable population,  I was able to change that in the manuscript.


It gets better

Well, I finally threw in the towel after foaming at the mouth too long over not being able to remove a permalink on the front page that directed people to my first novel instead of Because the Angels, the novel I’m currently trying to promote on Kindle.  Many thanks to Aldo Argaman, my husband Michael’s oldest son for creating a much more manageable site.

I do want to learn how to use social media, but I’d much rather write stories full of humor and pathos that transform the world.  Haven’t done that yet either—at least not the second part, but I’m just saying it would be more rewarding than figuring out permalinks.

I find that I’m in an interesting space literarily.  I’ve basically been playing with the plot and characters of my current novel (see previous posting), since 2009.  And now that it’s out to readers, I still have a lot to do—revisions based on readers’ comments, research on literary agents, submissions to novel contests, but in my downtimes, when I have insomnia, when I’m sitting through something boring, I no longer have a novel in my head to work on.

Maybe I’ll use that time for some spiritual development.  I’m going out to Los Angeles in a couple weeks to help an Iranian Jewish friend who was a dissident under the regimes of both the Shah and the Islamic Republic write her memoirs and that might give my brain some downtime mental yo-yo work to do.  But I suspect I should probably just embrace the space.